Ball lightning

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Ball lightning is an atmospheric phenomenon that accompanies electrical storms and manifests as a glowing ball about the size of a basketball, but sometimes as small as a golf ball or as large as a small car, and hovers in the air for a period of a few seconds to a couple minutes. Ball lightning often appears during thunderstorms and typically glows, spins, hisses, bounces, and floats. Most scientists accept its existence because reports of it extend all the way back to Ancient Greece.

Contents

Why should I be aware of this?

  • It is an extremely rare and poorly understood phenomenon and scientists are still uncertain that it exists, even after studying it for over 20 years.
  • Although artificial ball lightning as been created in the laboratory with sophisticated equipment, science is at a loss to explain how it is created naturally.
  • Being such a powerful natural phenomena, scientists are exploring if ball lightning can be turned into a weapon.
  • Even though it hasn't even been properly replicated in the laboratory yet, the U.S. military started exploring ways of weaponizing the phenomenon since the mid-60s.

All about Ball lightning

Though there is no scientifically confirmed video of ball lightning, the majority of the reports tells a consistent story and do not vary too widely in the details.

In 1960 an informal poll conducted by a newspaper found that 5% of respondents claimed to have witnessed ball lightning. Nevertheless, reports continue to come in, and ball lightning is sometimes regarded as a UFO - an unidentified flying object - meaning something in the sky which cannot be readily identified.

Still an enigma

Ball lightning has still remained an enigma mainly because it is so rare, and when it does occur it doesn’t stay around long enough to be studied.

The enigma not only surrounds the question how it is created naturally , but also around how it manages to maintain the integrity of its ball-like shape as it moves about – sometimes moving harmlessly right through solid walls and other structures without apparently changing form. Yet other times it can be highly destructive.

Earliest records

One of the earliest recorded, and most destructive, occurrences of ball lightning is thought to have taken place during The Great Thunderstorm at Widecombe-in-the-Moor, Devon, in the United Kingdom, on October 21, 1638. Four people died and around 60 were injured when what appears to have been ball lightning struck a church.

Another reference to ball lightning appears in Laura Ingalls Wilder's book On the Banks of Plum Creek in which the lightning appears during a thunderstorm near a cast iron stove in the family's kitchen. It is described as appearing near the stovepipe, then rolling across the floor, only to disappear as the mother chases it with a willow-branch broom.

Prevailing theories

A number of philosophers and scientists have studied the phenomenon but few have been able to produce a theory that can account for the full range of the lightning balls' observed characteristics.

Though ball lightning stories have been fairly consistent, it has thus far defied scientific explanation. Scientists have postulated that plasma clouds, which are composed of charged particles that recombine into atoms and glow with light, may be behind the phenomenon. The ball may be formed from clouds created by an energy source like a conventional lightning.

An alternative theory suggests that when lightning strikes a surface, a vapor is formed. The vapor condenses into particles that mix with oxygen in the air and then slowly burn with the release of chemical energy.

Recent research

Tel Aviv University researchers have come up with a partial explanation. Dr Jerby and Dr Dikhtyar created ball-lightning-like fireballs in their laboratory by putting pieces of silicon or one of a number of other solid materials inside a shoe-box-sized cavity and zapping the material with microwaves from a metal tip. Once the material had melted, the researchers pulled the metal tip away, dragging material from the molten hotspot. That created a column of fire which then detached itself to form a floating, quivering fireball.

Now, Dr Jerby and Dr Dikhtyar have teamed up with Brian Mitchell of the University of Rennes and his colleagues at the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility (ESRF), a giant X-ray machine in France, to analyze the structure of their fireballs. By making fireballs in the path of the ESRF's X-rays, and observing how the rays are scattered, the researchers have concluded that the balls are full of particles with a diameter of about 50 billionths of a meter. In other words, 50 nanometers. In other words, nanoparticles. [1]

CopperBytes

  • Thousands of eyewitnesses have described seeing a floating, glowing ball similar to a tennis ball or even a beach ball. [2]
  • There are around 10,000 written accounts of observations covering many countries with similar properties recurring in many observations. [2]
  • Ball lightning floats near the ground, sometimes bounces off the ground or other objects, and does not obey the whims of wind or the laws of gravity. [2]
  • An average ball lightning glows with the power of a 100-watt bulb. Some have been reported to melt through glass windows and burn through screens. [2]

Unlearn

Many eyewitnesses describe its movement or “behavior” as seemingly intelligent, as if it knows where it wants to go. When it enters houses, it often enters through doorways or windows and travels down hallways. [3]

References:

  • What is Ball Lightning?
  • Scientist Looks to Weaponize Ball Lightning

Source

  1. The Economist
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 National Geographic
  3. About.com - Paranormal Phenomena